Sophisticated online games provide users with hours of harmless entertainment – as long as they can control their enthusiasm.

This March, a man in Shanghai became the first person to be murdered over an online game. He had sold, for real money, a virtual sword that another gamer had lent him.

His cheated friend's response was clearly disproportionate, but for many young UAE residents the strength of his emotion generated no surprise.

"There was also a guy in the States who committed suicide because his character got hacked," says George K., a designer and avid gamer. "Loads of people have also lost their jobs because of gaming."

Any UAE gamer can also attest to the addictive appeal of online gaming. Of course, most gamers will deny they, personally, have let gaming take over their lives.

But they may offer to put you in touch with an online gaming freak who has totally lost all perspective.

Naturally, if you contact them, they say exactly the same. George, who once regularly put in nine-hour sessions on Gunbound or Counterstrike, considers his own gaming habit to be back under control.

At one point, though, he admits it had severe repercussions on his social life.

"I remember when I was invited to a party at a friend's house," he says. "If I found a PC, I would download the software and start gaming."

Even then, though, he encountered gamers even more dedicated.

"When I lived in Dubai there was a nearby internet café that opened at six in the morning," he says.

"I would see people waiting to game outside it before it opened. And that's when I realised I wasn't that bad."

Such white-hot enthusiasm might seem to need no fanning, yet in the UAE the potential of online gaming is definitely under-exploited.

"In Europe, gaming is a hundred times what there is here," says Will, a 26-year-old finance administration manager who caught the bug in Germany.

"It is a huge market, not just for kids but there is a lack of marketing or promotional efforts in the region. For instance, you rarely see adverts for games."

The two essential attractions of online gaming are that it provides social interaction as well as an opponent of your own level.

The development of better software and more powerful machines has also lent them some of the graphic realism of consul games like Battlefield 2.

"Nowdays online games are catching up big time," says George K.

"They are driving online industry and the development of more advanced PCs. If it's a war game or a strategy game you work in teams. You start listening to the guy with the best armour. Right now, out of a group of 100, I am 12 and I enjoy telling people what to do."


Online social exchanges have become increasingly sophisticated with the new breed of MMORPGs —massive multiplayer online role-playing games.

An example is the Tolkeinesque World of Warcraft — a big success where dedicated servers can sustain its complex interactions.

Yet the sophistication of interactions provides both a buzz and a sting. Still, the clans or guilds in which gamers collaborate in online battles occasionally take on depressing elements of real-life conflict.

"There is a lot of politics and racism," says George. "I sometimes worry about how it might affect younger players."

"There is a degree of social interaction," says Elle Alberto, a 29-year-old telecommunications executive.

"You get to play and start talking with people, but they often call you names and people get really aggressive, especially if someone on their team tells them they are not up to it."

Still, it all beefs up the realism. "Nowadays I don't have to play basketball outside," says George K.

"I can play it in my room. You still get the same feelings, especially if you can play with other people."

For now, though, owing to the relatively sparse uptake of online gaming in the Middle East, or the oversight of the gaming companies, UAE gamers must surmount practical obstacles to join in.

"I bought a Microsoft Xbox for online gaming," says Ziad Jadaa, a 27-year-old network manager.

"But, for example, when I play a racing game my opponents complain because for them my car is jumping all over the place. I abandoned the Xbox because of this."

Server problem

The essential problem is a lack of nearby dedicated servers. Currently, the best nearest locations for gamers to stage their online contests are Hong Kong and Singapore.

"I come across a lot of players from Dubai on servers in the Far East. Like me they are frustrated by the lack of servers," says Jadaa.

All the same, given half a chance UAE-based gamers are capable of competing at the highest levels.

In Gunbound, a shooting game, the ranking were recently topped by someone called "UAE Rules". The UAE Clan is also second in the world.

"A lot of parents don't understand why their children are gaming," says George K. "But it's better to be addicted to gaming than to the needle."